Monday, July 30, 2012

Lost in translation...

I’ve made many passing references this blogging summer to Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, a book which I’ve said changed my life. The book first attracted my interest when I was trying to find a dissertation topic back in the late 90’s. Since I was in the process of metamorphosing from a pianist into a collaborative pianist*, I had become quite interested in the subject of musical transcriptions. After all, I was often spending hours a day pretending to be an orchestra accompanying concerti, arias, opera scenes, oratorios, etc. – and I loved being an orchestra. Come to think of it, my first deep attraction to music came when I took up the cello and joined my junior high school orchestra; seeing how parts fit together this way had an important catalytic impact on my theretofore casual piano studies. So, perhaps it makes sense that my piano training led me back to the “orchestra.”

And those scare quotes around “orchestra” are what, for awhile, I hoped to dissert about. I was and still am intrigued by what it means to have some core identity of a musical work shapeshift from the product of 100 musicians to 10 fingers. It says a lot about how Western music has been constructed that we so often accept this transfer from one media to another, even though we know something always gets lost in translation. Although piano reductions have long served utilitarian purposes, I thought there should be more literature addressing this curious art as art.

So when I saw that Hofstadter, author of the wonderfully interdisciplinary Gödel, Escher, Bach, had written a book about the art of translating art (in this case, poetry), subtitled “In Praise of the Music of Language,” I read it with great anticipation. (You might say I hoped to write a similar book about translating music, perhaps subtitled "In Praise of the Language of Music.") The surprising thing is that I became so interested in poetic translation that my dissertation topic shifted into the process of translating a French operetta libretto into English (while also “translating” a fairly standard orchestration into a chamber version). The aesthetics of piano reductions continued more as a side interest, something I still hope to explore more fully some day.

Well, that day has not yet fully arrived, but I've brought a small-scale case study. Hofstadter’s book is all about translating a tiny, tightly constructed French poem into English. (You'll see a few of my translations in future posts. UPDATE: See these translations here.) Most of the 600-plus pages flow out of questions about just what a translator should prioritize when transferring this "information" from language to another. Is it primarily a matter of getting the same ideas across? What about the rhymes? Meter? Alliteration? Does every line have to match up exactly, or can ideas move from one place in the poem to another? Medium vs. Message? Robert Frost famously said that "poetry is what gets lost in translation," but Hofstadter disagrees pretty strongly, just as I feel pretty strongly that a big concerto can still be very satisfying with only piano accompaniment. Yet, I'm sure we can all agree that there are times when a translation fails in some fundamental way.

So, to my case-study. My daughter started working on Prokofiev's first violin concerto this summer. I'm not sure why, but it's a piece I've never really gotten to know well, although I heard Hilary Hahn slice and dice it in absolutely glorious fashion with the BSO a couple of years ago. (The more popular second concerto I've known for years and accompanied - er, served as its "orchestra" - many times.) I've written before about how when Daughter of MMmusing is studying a piece, I tend to like it more than expected and that the enthusiasm often wears off when she's moved on, but I'm pretty sure this "new to me" Prokofiev is a keeper. I've fallen head over heels in love with it, and for now, it seems like the most perfect and special of all concertos. (And I LOVE the violin concerto repertoire.)

One of its most magical and fairly unique features is the way the first and final movements end in almost exactly the same way. In the first movement, the closing section has featured the flute playing [7:50] the melody (see above) with which the soloist had opened [0:15] the concerto, the flute line now embroidered by intricate violin filigree; in the final movement, the violin itself revisits the same tune [19:44], trilling every note ethereally. In both movements, the closing section leads the soloist up to a high D [I: 9:25 III: 21:28], and then a few echoes of the rising fourth (A-D) that first generated the melody. Beneath this stratospheric rocking motion, the flute introduces a quirky, rising figure outlining F-sharp minor and thus emphasizing a C-sharp against the tonic D Major chord, with an even stranger clarinet line snaking up chromatically below. These flute and clarinet lines seem to have wandered in from some other concerto.

[click to view larger]

So, there's resolution mixed with the unexpected, heavenly serenity mixed with earthy sensuality. When the violin finally lands on the last high D, the flute slithers up an exotic scale from its lowest reaches. One could easily argue that this flute line is less about melody or harmony or even rhythm than it is about color – the piece is basically over, but it’s as if this final resolution (and new vantage point) unearths a curious new discovery. I don’t hear the ending as subversive or deceptive, although it could be interpreted that way, but rather as an unexpected heavenly reward, a little bit of earth come to color the sky.

That’s about as sappy a musical description as I’ve ever attempted here on the blog (I hope), and it’s much too wordy. A musical picture may be worth a thousand words, but who wants to read a thousand words about five seconds? The point is, this flute line is both superficial and essential to the character of the ending.

Here’s what it looks and sounds like in the score (slightly simplified to make these parts easier to read; note that this is a synthesized performance - not bad for virtual reality!).

[for some reason, clarinet audio is barely audible in transfer to YouTube; will fix soon.]

And here’s what those three bars look and sound like in the published
 piano reduction I have:

All the good stuff is gone, especially in the final bar! Nothing but D Major arpeggios ascending upwards, a completely different effect. In the previous two bars, rather than play the distinctive rhythm of the flute, the pianist is given a bare outline that was originally played by the harp, but clearly subsidiary to the flute line.

There are all sorts of legitimate philosophies about what to leave out in a piano reduction, and all sorts of practical reasons to leave out even the most beloved little orchestral touches, but I can’t imagine the mindset that says those flute lines are expendable. It’s the end, the culmination, the reward, the final thought. The ending of the piece in the piano version above is missing the ending – like getting to heaven and finding it predictable and a little dull. It’s true that a piano can only begin to approximate the special color of a flute in that register. In fact, this concerto as a whole has many lovely chamber-like moments when only a few instruments are audible (clarinet, flute, and harp especially) and a piano can only begin to suggest what Prokofiev had in mind, but we collaborative pianists are all about suggesting. The fact is, it’s not very hard to play that little flute scale, and I will certainly do it when performances come around.

On the other hand, I would probably leave out the clarinet line (because it would be hard!), even though it also adds something unique, so there's a sliding scale in play. Hopefully it would come out something like this, though a real piano can do more shimmering (or so I choose to believe) than you get here.

Actually, after years of thinking I wanted to create my own piano transcriptions, I’ve realized that as a performer, I care less and less about exactly how things are rendered on the page, because I’m more and more likely to use my in-the-moment instincts to make decisions about what to play, how to pedal, etc. I think I’d drive myself crazy trying to get all these little decisions notated, and I suspect that the subtleties of touch and pedaling have more to do with a good “black and white orchestration” than what is printed on the page. (Trying to get that L.H. tremolo to sound decent with synths was much harder than getting the other instruments to sound real-ish.) But I do think this art of translation is worth pursuing as well as possible. I realize that whoever transcribed the Prokofiev above may have thought of the reduction as little more than a rehearsal dummy to let the violinist feel how things synch up, but endings matter. And that's the end of this post.

P.S. It's never totally clear to me how many people are interested in this kind of musical minutiae (I just wrote a lot of words about three bars of music), but if this post has inspired you either to get to know Prokofiev's first violin concerto or to explore Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot, then I will have accomplished something. I genuinely think these are two of the most sparkling monuments of the 20th century.

* I used "scare italics" to put a skeptical tone on this notion that a "collaborative pianist" is somehow different from a "pianist." Personally, I don't even mind being called an "accompanist!" Note the combo "scare quotes, italics, and exclamation point" to suggest just how volatile this word has become. Also note that, although I'm sure many writers and editors would say I use way too many parentheticals, hyphens, italics for emphasis, and scare quotes for eyebrow-raising, I think all these elements can help clarify the language being used.
It also occurs to me that, just as Hofstadter talks about translation as a kind of analogy-game (e.g. "jeux is a French analogy for 'game'"), scare quotes and the like can be a way of clarifying that a word is being used in a particularly analogical way. When I say that I am a pianist being an "orchestra," I want to say more than that I'm playing the orchestra part, but less than that I'm becoming dozens of people. I'm actually acting as an analogy for the orchestra. And if I do a good job, then like a good poetic translation, I have managed to keep from losing all of the art in the process of translation. (By the way, Hofstadter begins his great book noting that "Lost in an Art" is an anagram of "Translation.")

Monday, July 16, 2012

More Cover Coverage

So, there was this online contest to design the best new album cover for a highly regarded classical CD. The contest promised lots of money and high-profile opportunities for the winner. Thus, I suddenly got hooked on the art of designing CD covers and ended up with a pretty cool Hahn/Lisitsa/Ives CD cover that won me first prize, $1000, and a job as head of marketing at Deutsche Grammophon.

Unfortunately, the only part of that paragraph that's true is the "I suddenly got hooked on the art of designing CD covers" part. This is likely a passing phase, but as I detailed in our last episode, a Proper Discord sampling of text-driven album covers got me interested in trying to create pictures with words. I gave that post the clever title, "A few words = A picture = A thousand words," which of course implies that "A few words = A thousand words." Obviously, there are some problems with my math. Aside from the unsettled question of just how many words it really takes to equal a picture, the slippery part of my equation is to consider these "few words" as just words. In fact, many of the "text-driven" covers are just as much driven by elements of graphic design, which is to say that the words are serving as pictures. There's a kind of slippage between medium and message going on, as my hero Douglas Hofstadter would say; in fact, words often (usually...or, perhaps, always) do more than just stand in for specific ideas, people, etc.

They may not always function as pictures, but they also have sonic qualities which can become musical (some might say "poetic"), whether it's via rhyme, meter, alliteration, etc. Words might also have structural properties that create meaningful patterns - like the fact that the following "words" can be interlaced into a fairly tight crossword pattern: Hilary - Hahn - Valentina - Lisitsa - Ives - Violin - Sonatas. So, there are plenty of ways in which a few words might say more than just a few words. They can also say less, but that's a subject for another day.

When I condensed the "Minute Waltz" down to a minute, inspired by its much-maligned title (maligned because people inevitably read mi-'nute as 'mi-nute), I mentioned that I was translating this piece into the "medium of pieces that last 60 seconds." Aside from providing a good excuse for my mischief, it also reminds us that a medium can often be of interest in part due to its defining constraints, another pet Hofstadter topic. Sonnets, haiku, palindromes, acrostics, canons, piano pieces for left hand alone, piano pieces that last exactly a minute: they all offer a special framework which will likely exert a strong influence on the receiver beyond the mere words or pitches. The medium becomes part of the meaning.

And speaking of media, how about the "CD album cover with no artist photos" as medium? When I created my first text-driven cover, I was inspired by the much-maligned font Comic Sans to create a little dialogue with the person holding the CD:

Though it's not a very good translation of Chopin's music (or a very good picture), it's actually a pretty good translation of the subliminal message such CDs used to exert on me. The digital world means I don't buy many CDs these days, but I still have vivid memories of standing in Tower Records on Pennsylvania Av. in Washington, D.C. holding various CDs in hand and trying to figure out what I could afford to take home. And, yes, an image of someone like the legendary Maurizio Pollini on a cover (or even just the image created by the letters of his name) could exert a mystical kind of hold on me. Of course, I would've been insulted to have an album cover openly saying what I was thinking, which is why the subliminal works better than the superliminal.

...but I'd say my cover is a pretty accurate translation!

OK, but how about an even more restricted medium - the medium of CD album covers that resemble medicine labels? Pretty strange way to go, but Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot has many examples of seemingly arbitrary constraints into which ideas are poured. Check out this curious bit of poetry:
Washington Crossing the Delaware 
A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger! 
The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general's action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row. 
Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold. 
George can't lose war with's hands in;
He's astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

Not the most elegant of sonnets, perhaps even uglier than the average medicine label - until you consider that every single line is an anagram of the poem's title! I know, right? 

I cheated a little bit with my "medicine CD" (see below) by making up my own imaginary recording, though a recording of these Bellini songs does exist. I also cheated by indulging in some superliminal counter-marketing on my cover ("may cause drowsiness," etc.) because it was just more fun that way. Otherwise, I tried pretty hard to work within my self-imposed constraint: create a "working" album cover that looks like a medicine label. It's nice that Bellini actually sounds like the kind of name a drug company might give a product with a mouthful of a generic name like Composizioni da camera. I also had some fun inventing the ominous sounding company LaSonn Ambula (Google Translator tells me Ambula means "outpatient!"), which somehow reminds me of the fictitious drug conglomerate Devlin McGregor from The Fugitive - and which also happens to be the name of one of Bellini's most famous operas.

Since that opera is about a sleepwalker, it ties in nicely with the idea that Bellini® is a sort of natural Ambien - at least for pianists. Note that the pianist in this "recording" is named after a famous Puccini aria about not sleeping, so even the imaginary pianist has been translated into this druggy world; Giuditta Pasta is not imaginary, though also not available for recordings; she is the singer who debuted the role of the sleepwalking soprano in 1831, which I might have included as the expiration date on these songs if I'd been more clever.

If medicine label CD covers is too far for you as a worthwhile medium, let's re-visit my crossword design from the last post:

Though it's coincidental, surely there's some value in seeing all these lovely words cross so nicely, a sort of graphic representation of what happens when a phenomenally talented fiddler and pianist cross paths with a great composer. However, as an album cover it's a bit bland, so I decided it might be nice to cross this "word image" with some photos, and here we have my award-winning final design: 

You might say (might...) it's my own "cover" of this cover:

And that about covers it...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A few words = A picture = A thousand words

Over at Proper Discord, there's a nice selection of album covers that get by without photos of the performing artists or reproductions of French Impressionist landscapes. Pure, text-driven covers, abstractly rendered with elegant fonts and color schemes. Here are just a few:

My first, silly Twitter impulse was to take this concept to the absurd extreme by featuring that most disparaged of fonts, Comic Sans. This quickly led to the idea of comic strip bubbles imploring the browser to buy the CD in question:

Ah, the glories of MS Paint.

A little later in the day, I re-visited a design I've used on many a last-minute (or last-minute looking) recital poster: Stenciled text on brown shipping paper. (Vaguely reminiscent, at least in color scheme, of this old CBS Masterworks design; I had dozens of those "Great Performances" LPs.)

What I found most rewarding about this one is noticing for the first time how closely related "Gould Bach" and "Gold Berg" are as word pairs. (Hofstadter would love this kind of insight via interplay of medium and message.)

Somehow, my mind then went to one of the ugliest of text-driven layout genres: the medicine label. As soon as the phrase "may cause drowsiness" popped into my head, I knew this had to happen. After a little image Googling, I decided this had the right look:

On the subject of drowsiness, I decided nothing excites me less as a pianist than hearing a singer say, "Oh, I'm going to be doing a set of songs by {insert one: Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini}" because they all write deadly dull piano parts. Bellini won, partly because Composizioni da Camera has the right imposingly generic ring.

Take two and call me in the morning...

UPDATE: Here's another text-driven idea. The look could be improved, but I'm pretty proud of getting so many letters interlaced. It's a better design than this:

UPDATE: A fancier version of the Ives/Hahn/Lisitsa cover appears in the next post.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Minute by minute

That last post was supposed to be an introduction to these new "Minute Waltz" videos, but the introduction became its own unwieldy post - so back to some lighthearted Chopin, and some even more lighthearted "interpretations." As I anticipated, my "Minute Waltz in a minute video" inspired some tsk-tsk'ing. A Twitter follower commented:
Impressive, yes. like it? no. There is no time to enjoy the melody and harmony. Don't think Mozart would like it.
I suppose I can't really disagree with this assessment, but I'd still like to pick it apart a bit, if only to help answer the question of why I accelerated Chopin's poor little waltz in the first place.

First of all: Impressive? I'd say, "No." I just took some audio from a poor, hard-working pianist who'd done the work of learning the notes and interpreting them with sublime artistry, I hit a virtual switch and, voilà, 108 seconds was sliced to 60. At least this guy you see below worked with real fingers in real time (notice by the way how he, too, feels compelled to post multiple disclaimers ahead of time [you have to turn the annotations on], just as I did in my previous Chopin post; the moral highground is pretty intimidating in classical music):

As for my video, I'm more impressed with the nifty visualization, with its time counter, sweeping second hand, sweeping composer eyes, and newly added spinning score - they all provide useful visual analogues for thinking about this as a high-stakes, one-minute event.

But our concept of impressive is significantly based on an understanding that a real person with real fingers has played all those notes in time, and most of us can instinctively tell that this performance isn't real. It's too fast to be impressive! As it happens, my very first two blog posts (ever) focused on related topics: 1) my debut post about the Joyce Hatto scandal stressed how much our listening is colored by what we know or think we know about the performers, and 2) my second post discussed how much musical meaning can be shaped by our understanding of the technical challenges involved. It's hard to evaluate such music outside the context of how humans can and ought (?) to play. (That parenthetical question mark indicates my eyebrows being raised suspiciously.)

Now, as for the objection raised above: "There is no time to enjoy the melody and harmony. Don't think Mozart would like it." We can dismiss the Mozart point, because who knows? (Although I think Mozart would've liked it.) But what about this "no time" to enjoy the melody/harmony? First of all, this piece does not feature any particularly noteworthy harmonies (not by Chopin's standards) and they only change once per bar, which isn't that fast, even when accelerated. More to the point, we all know the melody and harmonies quite well, so certainly we can take them in a little more quickly than usual. Of course, the "no time to enjoy" really is code for "there isn't the optimal amount of time to enjoy," and it's a fascinating topic in itself how often reviewers (myself included) use this kind of all-or-nothing language to describe something less than ideal. It's also curious how we train ourselves to think that the "optimal time" should be a constant, no wonder how well a work is known.*

I think part of what's going on is that the almost unreal tempo sends a message to our brain that musicality is being sacrificed for velocity, but is that the case here? The performance I stole is beautifully proportioned and features several moments of rubato, so even well above the speed limit, there's still time taken to take in the scenery. Proportionally, this is not at all a rushed performance - rather, its particulars have been translated to a different time frame. This brings me back to some of the issues raised in Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot. Rather than transposing this waltz for violin or tuba quartet, Hofstadter might say it's been translated to the medium of "pieces that last 60 seconds." (By the way, several of Chopin's preludes come in easily under a minute. Go to the iTunes store, and you can listen to all 24 seconds of Op. 24/10 for free within the 30-second preview limit.) Maybe if you drink enough coffee before listening, the medium will be just right.

Still, why translate this piece to such a medium when Chopin definitely never intended it to last a minute? I'd say there's some poetic justice here. There's little doubt that this waltz has received exponentially more performances and notoriety than it would have if it were known only as Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No1. Well, Mr. Op.64/1, you gotta take the good with the bad. The association of this music with 60 seconds may be unfair, but the title is so culturally ingrained, it's hard not to think about it as a one-minute ride, just as it's hard to disassociate Beethoven's Op.27/2 from moonlight - and, as often, there's some truth in the stubborn title; turning it into a minute waltz is on the edge of possibility, even it leaves little opportunity for musical subtlety, at least for us humans. [Impudent Question(s): Why does everything have to be so subtle anyway? Can't Chopin just let loose every now and then?] Virtual engineering makes it more than possible, so why not give it a try? It would be almost crazy if I didn't do this. 

You may recall Stephen Hough complaining that "it's impossible to play [this piece] in 60 seconds unless you crash brutally, meaninglessly through the central section," but I couldn't help noticing how unhurried that section is in my video above; could I borrow some time from there to ease up the outer sections? So, I played around with the tempi just a little, slowing up the outer sections and speeding up the middle so that they end up being closer to the same pulse; I hoped this would make the outer sections seem a bit more realistic, but I think more harm is done than good as the middle section really does seem too giddy now, if not brutal. Here's what this more tampered version sounds like:

Unfortunately, this now left me with two different interpretations of the piece that each last exactly 60 seconds, but with different interior proportions. How could I resist playing them simultaneously? Thus, in the video below, we have the following going on with reference to the ABA structure:
  • Top Score/Right Channel: proportions are roughly 22+16+22
  • Bottom Score/Left Channel: proportions are roughly 20+20+20

It's not clear to me if I'm the only person in the world who gets such a kick out of this kind of thing, but I find it genuinely gratifying to listen to and watch. It is, in some respects, a kind of mensuration canon (same tune moving at two different speeds), though without anything like the meticulously worked-out vertical intersections conjured by Ockeghem and others. There is also an analogy to the kinds of phasing techniques pioneered by Steve Reich, but again, without nearly the same attention to detail. (There's also an analogy to viola duets, but let's not go there...)

And yet, the sound of the two parts chasing after each other is invigorating and, I believe, can provide the same kind of pleasure in following multiple melodic strands as more traditional counterpoint. I especially enjoy hearing the parts join together briefly at the midway point and the extra long trill starting at 0:35 is cool, too. At other times, it's just like a kooky echo chamber; listen to that almost-together run at the end. And even if you hate it, it's only a minute of your time.

If you do like it, you might want to sample the following from my shady past:

* There's good reason for thinking an optimal tempo should be constant; in the classical tradition especially (though broadly true for most traditions), music exists in time in this sort of eternal new, even though we so often listen to music that's old and familiar. Thus, that deceptive cadence or that rhythmic disruption can be "surprising" every time, even though it's not really surprising at all. (See just about everything I've ever written about The Rite of Spring. Of course, this can also be true of events in novels, films, etc.) In fact, an effective performance is often judged on its capacity to get these fully expected "in the moment" moments just right, and sometimes a microsecond's difference of timing or a tiny shading of timbre will cause a reviewer/listener to say a theme was not given "time" to breathe. And (I think) the better the listener knows the music, the more likely he/she is to insist that the spontaneous moment conform to a preconceived notion of how it should be executed so that it sounds spontaneous. Such notions are conditioned, to some degree, by virtually everything that's ever happened in our musical past, both personal and culturally. This merging of past and present is not unlike those Douglas Hofstadter's self-referential loops, which loops us back to the previous post.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dances with words

My Blogger profile mentions that reading Douglas Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot changed my life. (I began another post exactly the same way five years ago, just to be self-referential.) My profile goes on to say, "I also like exploring other creative pursuits such as...writing poetry that rhymes; and creating effective translations (yes that's creative!)." I can say almost for certain that I would've written a lot fewer poems were it not for Hofstadter. Why, just three posts ago (which I'm embarrassed to say was three months ago), I blogged about a set of sonnets I wrote for my daughter, and that post includes links to quite a few other bits of MMrhyming. I also would surely never have embarked upon and completed a full translation of a French operetta into singable (I hope), rhyming English had I not read this book. The operetta is Gounod's The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and that translation had much to do with me becoming a doctor in spite of myself. That's a kind of self-referential loop that Hofstadter would love.

Hofstadter is most famous for another sprawling, crazy-brilliant work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning (1980) Gödel, Escher, Bach, which I have to admit I've never quite finished, though I've started it many times. It's all about self-referential loops such as Bach's Crab Canon, Escher's loopy drawings, and Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem." But, it's really about consciousness, and the ways in which our minds (in Hofstadter's view) arise from incredibly intricate, self-referential patterns - sort of; remember, I never finished the book! (The Gödel math stuff is pretty complicated - so many symbols.)

Le Ton beau de Marot debuted in 1997, tackling some of the same questions through the prism of language. I first read it in 1998 and I just finished my second reading yesterday. Though critical consensus seems to hold that it is a lesser book than Gödel, Escher, Bach, I strongly disagree. I find its every page to be inspiring in a way that makes the mind dance which, by the way, is what music does as well. The book happens to be subtitled "In Praise of the Music of Language," and I was first drawn to it by that subtitle, and because I was becoming interesting in philosophical questions concerting musical transcriptions. Hofstadter's book is all about linguistic translations, which I (more than Hofstadter, as I'll discuss in posts to come) see as significantly analogous to musical transcriptions. Come to think of it, I find myself disagreeing with lots of what Hofstadter has to say about music, although he and I share pretty similar tastes, which reminds me of a fun little story...

Just a couple of days ago, I was reading along while simultaneously listening to some music. It's fairly unusual for me to double-dip like this, but I'd just downloaded this Cho-Lian Ling Lin recording of Prokofiev and Stravinsky concertos because I've recently fallen head over heels in love with Prokofiev's first concerto. (Listen to this from about 5:35 on if you don't know the piece; surely the most breathtakingly beautiful ending to any concerto ever, but I digress...) I've listened to that concerto, in various recordings, probably 20 times in the past few weeks; in this case, the first concerto had ended, and I'd gone back to focusing on Hofstadter as the second concerto played. The second concerto I've known and loved for years, having accompanied it many times, but I hadn't listened to it for quite a long time. Lin was ripping through the wild finale as I turned to p.460 of Le Ton beau de Marot, and suddenly I found myself reading the following passage. [Here, Hofstadter is discussing musical tastes and his trying to come to some understanding of why people would rudely blare rock'n'roll out windows into the neighborhood. He admits that he hates rock'n'roll, but feels that the blaring itself is unconscionably rude. Until...]
...up popped the following memory from April, 1966. It's a beautiful crisp sunny spring morning in Ravenna, Italy. My parents and my sister and I are staying in a pretty hotel, and I wake up in an absolutely exuberant mood, with the Prokofiev second violin concerto running incredibly strongly through my head. I happen to have brought my tape recorder along on our trip, and I even have a tape of that piece with me. Almost breathlessly, I pull the tape out of my suitcase, mount it on the machine, fast-forward to the proper number, turn the volume up to maximum, and then - I ecstatically blast the sounds of Prokofiev's second violin concerto throughout the halls of our hotel. Noise-pollution city! Luckily for me, nobody complains.
OK, it's just a crazy coincidence (though much moreso because it turned out to be the second concerto I hadn't been listening to non-stop), but on some more abstract level, I find that Hofstadter's thinking out loud (in print) always resonates with me. By no means does this mean that I always agree with him; indeed, I suspect one reason Le Ton beau de Marot has turned off some critics is because the author is so blunt about his own opinions, some of which are quite strong and even just plain obnoxious - and he goes after some pretty big names. In future posts, I'm hoping to blog about some points on which I disagree with him, but I hope it's always with a deep appreciation for the brilliance of his vision. When I say his writing "resonates," I kind of mean the term in its musical sense - Hofstadter's words bounce around in my mind, vibrate, and create a richly complex halo of thoughts - thoughts about thinking, which of course is yet another example of self-reference.

Although I'm sad to have finished the book (the fact that the final chapter is quite sad doesn't help), I'm sure these resonances will keep bouncing around in my head in the weeks ahead. Why, just yesterday I saw that my sister had corrected herself in a Facebook comment, apologizing that Auto-correct had rendered "ill-mannered" as "I'll-mannered." I mused to myself that "being I'll-mannered" suggests an ill-mannered kind of selfishness, so I started typing up a clever comment along the lines of: "Being I'll-mannered is more likely to make you ill-mannered than being you'll-mannered or we'll-mannered..." and then it just jumped off the page. Just as "I'll" converts easily to "ill," by the exact same apostrophe-dropping process, "we'll" converts to "well," and "well-mannered" is just as commonly used as its opposite.

Within minutes, I was tweeting my own brand-new apostroph-ic aphorism (though someone's probably thought of it before):
He who's well-mannered is likely to be we'll-mannered. He who's ill-mannered is likely to be I'll-mannered.
Now, this is hardly the most inspired or creative of discoveries, but this process of discovery is the kind of thing Hofstadter loves to deconstruct, a curious combination of computer confusion, coincidental connotations, and chance conscious connection. There's no etymological reason why these word pairs (I'll/ill - we'll/well) should yield such parallel meanings when paired with "mannered," but the fact that they do is a small thing of beauty - a musical pattern emerging from an unexpected place. I strongly suspect my immersion in Hostadterana primed me to experience this incidental insight.

Hofstadter's investigations of artificial intelligence are based on something much deeper than the kind of database-based "thinking" that confuses Auto-correct - he would rightly scoff at the idea that Auto-correct has the kind of awareness to experience actual confusion. For Hofstadter, thinking lies in the kind of pattern-matching that inspires us to make meaningful analogies - like saying a set of printed words on a page can "make my mind dance" or that they can "resonate" in my head. But, resonate they do.

More to come...including some of my own poetic responses to Hofstadter's translation challenges.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Now just a minute...

Stephen Hough mentions in passing, while commenting about the general inanity of YouTube commenting, that Chopin's "Minute" Waltz should not (of course!) be shoehorned into a single minute. Although Hough certainly has the chops to hit the finish line in 60 seconds, he offers the fairly typical caution: "Oh, and Chopin never called the piece 'Minute Waltz' anyway, and it's impossible to play it in 60 seconds unless you crash brutally, meaninglessly through the central section." Well, maybe...

It actually raises a fairly interesting question about how we make aesthetic judgments; most of us have been told fairly regularly that music shouldn't just be about sport, and Chopin's gracefulness is so much more meaningful than empty displays of speed, and it's not really supposed to be a minute waltz, and the title was originally attached to the piece to suggest minuteness, as in tininess, not 60 seconds, etc. OK, I get all that, but still, I suspect that if I react negatively to a ridiculously fast performance of this piece, it's at least in part because I think I'm not supposed to like it that way.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but think it strange that I'd never given this piece the "Amphetpollini" treatment it so logically deserves. It probably is true that no human could play this piece gracefully in a minute or less, but we're not livin' in the 19th century. Technology has made it ever so easy to upgrade all the elegant proportions of a fine Joyce Hatto performance into something just a bit quicker (hey, it's not as if recordings aren't already altered in many, many ways via editing magic), and so:

Well, I'm not ashamed to say I like it. I do think that much of Hatto's grace is preserved, and the middle section is far from being a brutal crash-through. I also like how easily one can observe the almost perfect ternary (three-part) proportions - and it amazes me every time that, at the 0:51 mark, there's still time to get everything in.

As I discussed once in a little imaginary dialogue, at some point we might as well face the fact that we live in an electronic world, and that this might even impact what we do with the "classics." Sometimes. In fact, we already spend a lot of our lives experiencing the classics electronically, whether via mp3, CD, LP, or 8-track. Anyone who follows this blog will know that I find this kind of marriage of old and new irresistible,  much more so than I do most other types of electronic music. That, of course, says a lot about how old-fashioned my basic tastes are, but at least I can feel like I'm up to the minute for a minute or so.

See also: Ghostly Chopin

UPDATE: See follow-up post (and videos!) here.